Program Yourself to Reach your Goals

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First, become a robot.

Just kidding (kind of).  This tip comes from psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer.  He pioneered a self-regulation technique called implementation intention.  In order to take advantage of it, you have to program yourself.

Any of you with any programming experience will be familiar with if-then statements — the program checks for a condition and, if it is found, then an action is executed.

Implementation intention can be simplified as “if-then thinking.” Studies have shown that deciding on specific responses to certain stimuli ahead of time is far more effective than intention alone in accomplishing a goal.

Here’s how it works: you pick an if, and decide on a then.  So if your problem is that you drink too much at bars with friends, you can set up this if statement:

If { I am offered a drink } Then { I will say “I’m drinking water today” }

It sounds too easy (hey, I told you it was low-effort), but many peer-reviews studies support it.  In 2009, psychologists performed a study to test implementation intention’s effectiveness in self-regulation by studying fear and disgust responses to seeing a spider:

  1. The first group were given the simple goal intention to not experience fright or disgust, and were told to believe “I will not get frightened.”
  2. The second group were given the first goal intention, with an additional implementation intention, and were told to believe “And if I see a spider, I will stay calm and relaxed.”
  3. The third group were given no-self-regulation as the control group and did not receive any instruction prior to the event.

Only the second group–the group with a prescribed if/then process–reported reduced levels of disgust and anxiety upon seeing a spider. Implementation intention also proved to be effective in task-oriented goals and fitness goals.

My problems usually have to do with distraction and procrastination.  One if statement I always have running is:

If { I navigate to reddit } Then { I will look at my to do list before browsing }

Sometimes I’m being really lazy and I look at several unchecked boxes before saying “fuck it” and browsing anyway.  But other times it works.  And as long as it works sometimes, I’m improving.

The reason it works, and the reason that it’s low-effort, is that by associating a stimulus with a specific response ahead of time, you are establishing a new habit, which makes that response the easiest action to take.  The brain loves habits, because they allow it to go into autopilot and conserve energy (our brains are lazy slobs just like us).  What this tip does is give your brain a habit that has a result that you want, instead of one that you don’t.

It’s also important that the response you choose is specific.  If your brain has to work to decide what to do, you’re not making it easy for your brain to do what you want it to.  So your then action shouldn’t be “work on my business,” it should be “find 3 potential vendors” or “write a blog post.”

You can set up a specific if-then process right now.  It will take less than two minutes.  I know you’re feeling tempted to “do it later,” but take this opportunity to be a little more like the person you’re trying to be.

Think of a goal you have, or a project you’re working on.  Then, go to (does not require registration) and schedule a bunch of emails to yourself.  The email should be specific and instructive:

  • “Write a blog post about habits”
  • “Do 50 pushups”

Make sure to tell yourself: “When I receive the email that says ” [whatever you wrote to yourself] “, I will follow its instructions.”  It may be helpful to say this out loud.  I find it helpful to schedule the emails two or more weeks in advance so I have time to forget about it a little.  I find that when the reminders surprise me they are more effective.

If you end up using this tip, forward me a copy of the email! It’s interesting to see what people write to themselves.

Most emails are sent many years into the future. For our purposes, weeks or months in advance is better.



Also published on Medium.

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